Monday, June 8, 2020

Let American Democracy Be

Steven Johnston is Neal A. Maxwell Chair in Political Theory, Public Policy, and Public Service, University of Utah and is the author of, most recently, Wonder and Cruelty: Ontological War in 'It's a Wonderful Life' and Lincoln: The Ambiguous Icon

The ferocious social and political response to the sadistic murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police thug inspires. Swarms of democratic citizens in the United States (and around the globe) have taken to the streets to denounce structural racism and state violence and demand accountability and fundamental change, even raising the possibility of the abolition of policing as we now know it. They have done so despite the terrible dangers that the pandemic poses. Mainstream media have sounded the alarm about a possible resurgence of Covid-19 as a result of the communal protests, and while the possibility exists, it has conveniently distracted attention from the same threat already posed by a premature reopening of the economy championed by Donald Trump and the Republican Party. That George Floyd protesters were knowingly willing to take this risk indicates the terrible dilemma imposed on them: stay safe and (effectively) silent at home in the face of the routine onslaught on people of color in this country and thus see it continue unabated and unopposed, or take a stand in public knowing that this is just one more risk people are forced to assume in a society that willfully dominates people of color and will continue to do so for as long as white power and privilege perdure. Their courage and heroism cannot be overstated. They make American democracy look good even when it is dysfunctional. In short, they are enacting the moral and political principles American democracy already claims to embody.

Democratic activists confront more than coronavirus-related health risks. They also face serious dangers from the knee-jerk deployment of police and military forces whenever American citizens enact their democratic rights in public. (Trump’s brown-shirt tactics across the street from the White House to arrange a reelection photo-op merely perfected this perverse “security” arrangement.) These forces, armed to the teeth, have no place on America’s streets. The first amendment guarantees the people the right peaceably to assemble and demand meaningful change from their government. It does not guarantee this right under the watchful gaze and menacing presence of uniformed state officers wearing (or not) badges and guns. The streets belong to the people, not the police or the military. It is up to the people themselves to control them—and themselves. The police must remain in their barracks, especially when they are the institution that have created the need for democratic action. Otherwise, the police, as we have seen over the past week, just take another opportunity to employ deadly violence against the very people they ostensibly serve and protect. In this regard, it is the curfew order, an illegitimate suppression of politics and an inadvertent confession by the state that it cannot handle democratic citizens acting democratically, that gives police the license they seek to exercise their will to power, especially against people of color. The occasional expression of solidarity by police (taking a knee for a brief moment with protesters) does nothing to alter this fact of American life.

Does this mean that political protest might spiral out of control and turn to violence? Yes, it does. Does this mean that some who have no interest in politics, in racial justice, might capitalize on the situation and commit acts of vandalism and looting? Yes, it does? Aren’t these serious concerns? Yes, but they are not principal concerns. American democracy must be able to express itself, especially in moments such as this one. If, for whatever reasons, the streets themselves pay a price for the democratic freedom, militancy, and resistance they make possible, then that is a price American democracy must be prepared to pay. The United States unthinking spends trillions of dollars on needless, illegal wars abroad. The United States throws away trillions of dollars in reckless tax cuts for the rich and corporations who don’t need, let alone warrant, them. The United States can afford to pick up the tab for democracy’s expression, for righteous civil insurrection. After all, the United States created the conditions that led to the protests and made looting possible in the first place. The country thus bears ultimate responsibility to redeem and make whole citizens who became unwitting victims of the protests. In short, rather than look to punish those responsible for excesses, follow the advice of Martin Luther King and eliminate the conditions that enable those excesses in the first place. Until that is done, who are we to punish anyone?

Derek Chauvin’s murder of George Floyd appalls for any number of reasons. What might be most noticeable about the video capturing this atrocity, however, is the arrogant nonchalance with which Chauvin snuffs out Mr. Floyd’s life. Notice Chauvin’s body language. He rides George’s neck with his left hand resting on his thigh. Occasionally he has to balance himself. Chauvin’s posture suggests a sadist who enjoys the brutality he inflicts on a helpless black man face-down on the street, handcuffed. It’s as if he’s testing himself to see how long he can stay on top of Mr. Floyd without falling off. Chauvin indulging his lust for killing is sickening. None of his three police partners in crime tried to stop him. Rather, they protected him.

Chauvin and his cohorts should have been arrested the very day they killed Mr. Floyd and charged with murder. They were not. The escalating protests that followed were in sync with the act that triggered them, including the burning of one particular Minneapolis police station. In 2020, if and when a black person is murdered by police, and the state fails to take decisive action against them, the precinct that houses the killers becomes a legitimate object of response. A police precinct is more than a logistical center for the exercise of law and order. It is also a symbol of the community. A public trust, it ought to represent safety, justice, and equality under the law. When it not only fails to live up to these ideals but actively negates them it has lost its reason for being. It becomes nothing more than an outpost of oppression and domination, in which case it can and perhaps should be burned to the ground. When the police nullify the proverbial social contract making life together possible, they need to be taught a lesson they cannot forget. The police, that is, need to be deterred from their own brand of crime. Minneapolis police rightly surrendered the building to outraged democratic citizens, the building’s true sovereigns. Mr. Floyd’s murder would not have been possible in a decent society. That such murder is commonplace means that extraordinary measures might have to be taken to redress it. No justice, no peace must have some teeth behind it. It can’t just be a slogan that can, in turn, be dismissed by the powers that be. Burning Chauvin’s Minneapolis police station as an act of creative and disciplined violence. It restores the proper balance of power between the people and the state. The people, not Bunker Boy and the police, must dominate the streets. The police present themselves as enemies of the democratic people whenever they appear, especially armed and in riot gear, at a political rally or demonstration. As such, they should be considered the enemy until they prove otherwise. They do not belong and have no place in the political sphere. When they do, they tend to look for opportunities to attack their fellow citizens, as New York City police in particular have proven.

The George Floyd protesters can teach the so-called LIBERATE! militants a thing or two about democratic politics. The latter, drawn from Trump’s angry white male working-class base and incited by him, descended on state capitals like Lansing, Michigan, to demand their “rights.” They wanted stay-at-home orders lifted. The wanted the economy to reopen. They kept insisting on their rights. Participants would proclaim, “I have the right to go where I want and do what I want. It’s nobody’s business but my own. I can take the risk if I so choose.” What they were demanding was not liberty but license, a distinction lost on them in their rage. Unfortunately, this rage was apolitical and amounted to declaring that, “I can do whatever I want to do, the potential life or death consequences to others be damned.” They may have targeted state capitals, sites of power, but what they enacted was a rage fest, replete with guns, which gratuitously endangered themselves and others. I say gratuitously because they, unlike George Floyd protesters, had other options available to them. They could have demanded that the state provide disaster relief to them on a scale commensurate with the pandemic. Trump is wholly dependent on his base for an electoral college reelection. He feeds them regular doses of racial ressentiment to keep them devoted. They could have rejected this ugly brand of race politics and forced Trump and the GOP to keep them safe and protect them from economic ruin. If they withdraw their support, they have the power to destroy the GOP. They did not exercise it and as a result inflicted even more needless suffering on themselves and the country they claim to love. The LIBERATE! militants offer an example of what not to do politically in an emergency.

It is to the George Floyd protesters that we can look for inspiration. They represent an example of commitment to a more decent America, one in which Black Lives Matter. And if Black Lives actually do come to Matter, just imagine what else will come along in its wake.

June 6, 2020 



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